Things Below: Thoughts on the World and Literature, Part One of Two

When on July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School, he didn’t open his remarks as one would expect, by quoting a passage of scripture.  The young men to whom he spoke were, after all, seminarians who had spent their time at Harvard studying the Bible and preparing for a career in the ministry.  We’d assume that the speaker on such an occasion would draw his listeners’ attention to some meaningful bit of the Old or New Testament.  But Emerson does not.  He does open with a text, though not one from scripture.  Emerson writes:

“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.  The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers.  The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay.”

Thus, in this lush, lovely description of the natural world, Emerson sets forth his text: Nature.  And “nature,” as he writes elsewhere, “is the symbol of spirit,” a language through which God speaks to the soul.  That being so and Emerson’s portrayal of nature so appealing, you have to wonder why anyone in his audience remained in the room that evening, but didn’t instead flee to the Cambridge meadows where they could attend to the voice of God.  Being polite Unitarians, though, they kept their seats.

One of the singular aspects of Emerson’s philosophy was his contention that while ultimate value or truth is spiritual, we are so made that we encounter that ultimate reality through the world available to our senses.  Nature, then, is on the one hand indispensable as a kind of conduit to the ideal, but it is finally nothing so desirable as spirit.  Emerson famously depicts this ideal in his account of a transcendental experience, where for some fleeting moments he is, as it were, lifted out of his physical self and senses his deepest spiritual identity.  In that mystical state he discovers that he is “part or parcel of God,” that “through [him]” “circulate” “the currents of the universal Being.”  In other words, the natural world in which he luxuriates at the start of the “Divinity School Address,” attractive as it is, is one that in the ideal he would leave behind for the better world of pure spirit.

Now Ralph Waldo Emerson was a nineteenth century philosophical idealist whose ideas were considerably different from my own Christian views.  I believe, for example, that Jesus Christ is God and that it is only by his death and resurrection that men have any hope of being made right before a holy God.  Emerson, on the other hand, writes in the “Divinity School Address” that the first great flaw of “historical Christianity” is that it “has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.”  There’s a difference there, in case you missed it.

And yet, I tell you, though Emerson was no Christian, I have known those in the Christian world who, like Emerson, would rather get beyond material reality to the part, they imply, that matters.  Emerson at least values nature as an essential vehicle for spirit.  But not these Christians I’ve mentioned, ones for whom the physical world is a distraction or, worse still, a nemesis.  They seem to see human existence as little more than a spiritual transaction, the end of which is the assigning of that soul to its eternal fate.  I mean, seriously, what could matter more than the eternal state of your soul?

Nothing.

What then is the significance––the use––of anything else?  There are those, believe me, in the world I describe who conclude that none of the rest matters, is, as I’ve said, a nuisance or a source of temptation.  For them life is an endless preoccupation with the soul, with spiritual affairs, with God.  There are worse obsessions.

There are those in this world, also, who aren’t so obviously obsessed, but live all the same with the creeping anxiety that their love for or attachment to this earthly existence is in some crucial way wrong.  I think there may be such people in this room.  If so, if you find yourselves loving literature, for instance, and you fret that this reflects too great a love for this world, there are any number of alternatives.  Business administration, for example, is always an option.  That, however, is the beginning of despair.

Despite the wish of some that our existence be purely spiritual, our world possesses other dimensions with which we must deal.  We live, of course, in the inescapable current and consciousness of time.  And time is, as Robert Penn Warren reminds us often, the engine of narrative.  This is the singular, compelling truth, for instance, in his short poem, “Tell Me a Story”:

[A]
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,

Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.
[B]
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,

Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.

 

A second feature of our existence is that we occupy an embodied world, one comprised of shape, sound, shadow, taste, color, texture, aroma: and this we encounter in its profusion moment by moment: it greets us, it surprises us, it lures, it assaults, it fills us to overflowing.  Consider the world you find around you:

  • the shimmering, white-hot expanse of a Florida beach
  • icy sheets of rain on an October afternoon
  • the humid stink of an outdoor market in south-central China
  • sparks of sunlight freckling a forest floor as the leaves in the trees toss and hiss in a heavy wind
  • a smile on the face of your sister or brother
  • your feet, your shoes, the sound of a page turning

What, if the eternal state of one’s soul is the solitary legitimate concern of one’s life, what is the point or the value of all this?  A distraction?  A deception?  Or, worse yet, a temptation?

Let’s agree that the world accessible to us through our senses can be any of these things.  But that’s true of pretty much anything in our lives, isn’t it?  Even our impulse to charitable activity or our view of the Church, maybe even our idea of God, can become an idol that draws us away from God.  This material world is, I’ll remind you, God’s creation, one that he pronounced “good.”  Why not, then, love it, delight in it––remembering as we do that we should love it in proper proportion to our love for God.

Among those many places where we find an expression of love for this world is in Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Sunday Morning,” where his female protagonist, echoing Stevens’ own views, embraces the bounty of earthly existence.  There being no God and no heaven, Stevens writes,

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

In any balm or beauty of the earth,

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

True, the thoughts exhibited by this woman express a species of hedonism: she rejects the god who has made the sun, the fruit, and the green bird, and simply savors the pleasure she finds in each.  But they are good and they are lovely: she’s right in her attitude in that she recognizes them for these qualities.

Maybe a more fitting example is the experience of the natural world described in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead.  Here, as he approaches the end of his life, Robinson’s central character and narrator, Rev. John Ames, writes an extended letter to his young son.  Among the aging pastor’s array of memories and reflections are a variety of passages expressing his increased awareness of and delight in God’s physical creation.  Thus, early in the book Ames writes:

I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly.  As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial––if you remember them––and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There was all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once

and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to

close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what

awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it.

And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on

incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and

impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that

meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe,

and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they

sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in

the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try. (56-7)

A variation on this point, this expression of love––or at least a profound consciousness of, and respect and appreciation––for creation, occurs in Flannery O’Connor’s regular insistence that the writer always ground his work in an accurate representation of the physical world.  As she puts it in her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” a fiction writer should seek “to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe” (MM 80).  Elsewhere in that essay she writes that “[the fiction writer] appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions. It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions” (MM 67).  And again, she says, “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.  It’s not a grand enough job for you” (MM 68).  As for those who imagine escaping O’Connor’s directives in this regard by writing make-believe, she adds that “Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real––whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. I mean that we always begin with what is or with what has an eminent possibility of truth about it. Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic” (MM 96-7).

Dr. John Somerville is a professor of English at Hillsdale College.